Of the three aspects of the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is the Spirit that has always been the most confusing and mysterious. Just out of curiosity, I googled the phrase “Holy Spirit” and came up with 12,300,000 different web pages about the Holy Spirit. I gave a read through the first 2-3 million pages that popped up…what I discovered is that there is very little consensus on the Holy Spirit; and there is a huge variety of experiences. I’m sure, many of you have experienced God’s Spirit in different ways. I certainly have:
Years ago, when I was a college student, I worked in the media services department at my school as a media specialist. My wife insists on using the phrase “AV Geek”, but I really prefer media specialist. One weekend, I was asked to set up and run sound for a visiting group from a Pentecostal denomination for their worship service. After a fiery sermon, the pastor called people forward for special time of healing. I’ve got to be honest: I’d never seen anything quite like this.
The preacher, with one hand on the mic, would place the other hand on the forehead of the person desiring healing…he’d pray…he’d speak in tongues…a language none of us could understand, and then the preacher would push back on the forehead and the person would fall straight back, into the waiting arms of assistants, who would lower them down to the ground, where they would lay, sometimes for a long time, twitching occasionally. Let me be clear, I don’t mean to diminish or discount this form of healing. It is an important part of the faith of many different traditions. But for someone who grew up with a traditional, stoic, Scandinavian Lutheran church background, well…this was all a little weird. At that time, it was just outside of my definition of the word “normal”.
After awhile, one of their ushers noticed me at my sound board. Obviously I was the only person in the room who was not from their church. I’m pretty sure he thought that made me a candidate for recruitment. He smiled and approached me and said “so do you have any questions? Is there anything I can help you with?” “No, thanks! I’m all good! I’m just running sound!” He smiled, a disappointed kind of a smile, and then asked, “well, have you been saved? Are you a Christian?” “Yep! Yep I am!” “Ahhhh…good! Have you been baptized in the Spirit?” I didn’t really know what he meant by that and I suddenly got a little nervous that he was going to put his hand on my forehead and push, …so I just said “Oh yeah…sure! The Spirit!” and then I pretended that I had knobs on the sound board that needed adjusting. He smiled and left…but I could tell that he wasn’t convinced that I was going to make the cut.
It seems that people are able to create an image of the Holy Spirit that best meets their needs, wishes and desires.
- For some, the Holy Spirit is a warrior, or a guardian, whose sole job is to protect us and to fight against the powers of darkness.
- For others, the Holy Spirit is a power source…it is where we get our spiritual energy.
- For others, the Holy Spirit is a healer who brings health and wholeness.
- for many, perhaps going back to the old-school phrase “Holy Ghost”, the Spirit represents the mystery that is God…it is the “behind the scenes God”, the invisible God.
We all have our own ideas, shaped by our own history and our way of thinking about the Holy Spirit. But our Gospel for today guides us:
It begins in John 20 immediately after the resurrection. The disciples are gathered in a closed room. The doors are locked because frankly, they are terrified and bewildered. If the Jewish people were willing to have Jesus crucified, they wouldn’t hesitate to have the disciples arrested or worse. Jesus was dead, and his body had vanished. Mary reported having seen a resurrected Jesus, but the other disciples hadn’t seen any proof yet…so they were confused, and worried. So the doors are locked and the windows were closed. They were regrouping. Suddenly, in the middle of the room, without warning, Jesus appeared to them. They had to be shocked and maybe scared. But Jesus’ first words? “Peace be with you!” To prove who he was, he showed them his wounds, and they believed, and rejoiced.
Then he repeated himself: “Peace be with you…as my Father has sent me, I am sending you” and he did something unexpected: John’s gospel says that he breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But there is a problem here. The Gospel says that he breathed on them. But that might not be the best possible translation from the Greek into the English. The word that John actually uses in the original language for “breathed on” actually means “breathed into.” It’s the same word that is used in the creation story in Genesis 2 where it says that “then the Lord God formed humans from the dust of the ground, and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and they became a living beings.”
Jesus repeats the God’s action from the creation story; he breathes into his disciples. And he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And the Hebrew word he uses for Holy Spirit is the word “Ruach Hakkodesh”, which literally translates to wind, breath or Spirit of God. “Receive the breath of God.” The breath of God is God’s Spirit.
In Genesis, God breathes the Holy Spirit into humans to bring life. Here, in John’s Gospel, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit to bring new life. And in that single moment…in that single act, the world…our world, was changed.
It is through the Spirit of God that all of creation…God’s people…us… we are made new.
Jesus is saying that God’s work in the world is quite literally, breath. Like the human body depends on breath, the world depends on the breath, the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit surrounds us and quite literally brings life.
Then, after Jesus breathes, and after he gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, he gives them a charge: He says “If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
When you think about it, this is a tremendous responsibility. He is telling his disciples, you now have the power to proclaim forgiveness to those around you…and you have the power to withhold forgiveness. I do not think it is an accident that these two acts: the giving of the Holy Spirit, and the command to forgive others are linked together. Forgiveness of sins is not a human act. Ultimately, it is God alone, through the Holy Spirit, and then proclaimed by God’s people, who forgives. Jesus is saying to the disciples, and then to us: “as I have forgiven, I empower you now to forgive.” And so we can forgive in God’s name. We can reach out to each other to wipe away the dried and dirty tears of pain and guilt from one another’s faces and pronounce God’s forgiveness, giving power and courage to live in a world of hurt. When we forgive someone, the Spirit of God is literally breathed out on them and those who sin experience freedom and life. When we do not forgive, we all remain bound by sin.
On April 20,1981 I celebrated my 16th birthday. On that same afternoon, I received my driver’s license. On that same night, my parents handed me the car keys for the first time. (I had to run back to school to get something that I had “forgotten” in my locker. Riiiiggghhhttt.) I remember that it was raining that night. Now that I am a parent of a 16 year old, and I have also handed the keys over, I understand what a leap of faith that must have been for my parents. It was an incredible transitional moment. For the first time, I was being given a great responsibility. I was being given an adult responsibility. But my parents believed and trusted in me. I am certain now, that my parents were probably pacing the entire 45 minutes that I was gone. I am certain now, that there was a giant sigh of relief when I pulled the car back into the garage.
In this Gospel Jesus does something very similar for His followers. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent Me, so send I you.” He blesses them with the Holy Spirit, and he gives them the power to forgive. Jesus is handing the keys to the kingdom to His disciples. He is demonstrating to them that He is entrusting to them the message of the gospel. He gives to them a great privilege, and a great responsibility. He is showing them that He believes in them. And he is giving them the “Ruach Hakkodesh”, his breath…his Spirit…his life…
My friends, today, we gather here in this place, like the disciples did 2000 years ago. And we are the inheritors of that same promise, and that same responsibility. And Jesus says to each of us “As my Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus promises that we do not go alone. The breath of God blows through this place; the “Ruach Hokkodesh.” God’s presence is here. And because our God is a God of love and Grace, this promise is for you. Each of you.
God comes to you. God breathes into you his Holy Spirit. “Ruach Hokkodesh.” God makes you new…every day…and promises you the inheritance of peace and blessing. And God gives you the keys…God sends you out, strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit, to continue His work in the world. To care, to serve and to proclaim to people the forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ.
Breathe in deeply, (Go ahead…take and take a deep breath right now…in the nose…out the mouth…do it again…) Breath in deeply, and receive the Spirit of God. And go. Go and proclaim forgiveness and hope, in the name of the one who first forgives you.
Thanks be to God!